This month we have a day in the life from Cressida Ford, PA at Cardiff University. Cressida recently spoke at the Assist Conference. She was full of useful tips and very charismatic on stage. This brilliant day in the life gives you guys a little insight into her warm personality and a fantastic outlook on life and the role of a PA.
What are the main aspects of your role?
Arranging all the meetings is one thing, but making sure my boss has enough time to do the rest of his job is another altogether. I make sure he has everything he needs for all the day’s meetings embedded in his daily OneNote notebook every morning, and I work out how long each incoming task is likely to take him so that I can schedule them into his “free” time outside of meetings. My motto for myself is “Be the sunshine and the umbrella.”
What is your morning routine before you get in to the office?
I get up well before I need to, at 6:30, so I can make the most of my best time of day. It gives me time for a bath and then I can do some personal admin while I have breakfast, or practise my Spanish and Welsh on Duolingo. At 8:20 it’s time for my beautiful morning walk across the park to work… bearing in mind that this is Wales, and it rains exactly as much as you think it does…!
What time do you get into the office and what time do you leave?
I normally get into the office at 8:50, just before my boss, so his coffee and papers are on his desk when he arrives. Generally speaking, I’m lucky enough to be able to leave on time at 5pm most nights. When I do have to work late, I prefer to do it from home anyway – technology like Office 365 has made that easy these days, and my cat prefers it that way too!
My boss understands that I’ll arrive earlier or stay later when the work demands it, but he’s also a big believer in work/life balance and he’d probably raise it with me if I had to stay late regularly; I suspect it would lead to questions either about my efficiency or about my workload, both of which are things that can and should be addressed by an employer if that starts happening.
What does an average day look like?
The diary claims a lot of time – scheduling and rescheduling meetings – and I also have a shared inbox with the other assistants so we can cover each other and make sure everything’s getting done that needs to be; that can be processing overtime payments for technical staff, arranging catering for supplier meetings, international travel, expenses…
I’ve usually got some minutes to type up from a meeting the day before; I like to let them rest for half a day before I tidy them up, if possible, so my head’s clear and I can be sure they make sense. It’s funny; minutes always seem to be an assistant’s most hated task, but I quite enjoy it. I work in the IT department, so there’s a lot of technical jargon that gets thrown around, and trying to wrangle sense out of it and turn it into something useful for posterity is a fun challenge!
What do you do for lunch?
Oh my. Now you’re asking. I’m rubbish. I normally have a salami sandwich and a bag of Cheddars or something, and then depend on my drawer of snacks. (Sugar-free Digestives, people: they’re weirdly good!) Thursdays are great because the “tea club” orders fresh bread mid-morning and everyone gets together for toast in the staff room. Hot melty butter. Yum!
What is the hardest part of your day?
The worst is when my boss looks worn out by the evening. Of course, sometimes a full diary is unavoidable, but it’s my job to make his life as easy as possible, so I feel like I’ve failed him if he’s having a tiring week! I have to remind myself that we can only do what we can do; assistants might be superheroes, but even we can’t slow down the sun and add extra hours into a day. Quantum forbids it, alas.
What do you enjoy most about your role?
It sounds corny, but I’m super proud to work for Cardiff University; I really feel like I’m making a difference and contributing valuable education and research. Being proud of my organisation’s work is important to me. It’s also really rewarding when I feel like I’m making a noticeable difference to my boss’s life; it feels like a job well done.
What has been your career highlight?
At my last job, over the course of a year, I led the company’s move across to Office 365; I delivered training, developed an intranet on SharePoint, converted paper-based processes to digital workflows, and transformed the way we tracked costs and income forecasting. I even qualified as a bookkeeper to support the financial stuff. Looking at how the company was operating when I began the work compared to when I moved on, it’s virtually unrecognisable. I’m really proud of that, and so grateful that the company had the confidence in me to give me ownership of the project.
What do you do in the evening with your spare time?
I’m almost always involved in some kind of amateur theatre at any given time (yes, that picture is not in fact my actual wedding day), but on days when I don’t have a rehearsal, I do art, writing, music… I set myself a challenge at the start of last year: commit more time each week to the things I wish I was better at.
I feel like I spent a lot of my life until then just wishing I was already amazing at something and forgetting that the people I admire have worked really, really hard to get there first. Once you get past the idea that you have to impress yourself, that’s when you start to improve, because you’re not just binning things before you’ve even begun. That applies professionally as well, I think.
What is the one piece of advice you would give to other assistants?
The only sure-fire way to stand out at work is to be kind. Always do your best work, of course, obviously, but that’s kind of the baseline of having a job; it’s what they pay you for! But being kind is what makes you memorable.
It’s a form of self-improvement, really. The impact that a positive external focus can have on your attitude, and consequently on your work, your efficiency, your confidence, your abilities… it’s immeasurable. Kindness is the ultimate superpower.
What would you do if you were not an assistant?
I’ve done all sorts in my career – community events, arts marketing, financial management, probabilistic environmental risk modelling (and try saying that ten times fast)… And they’ve all been great and all led me here, to where I’m very happy.
In terms of a dream job, though, if I had the means to take the risk, I’d go to drama school and train as a professional actor. Sadly, I suspect I’m rather too tall to ever get cast in anything, so it’s lucky I love the job I have! (But obviously, George Lucas, if you’re reading this, your call is welcome any time…)
What is the one piece of technology, app or website you could not do your job without?
My boss and I have a great system going with Trello. It’s a brilliant way to organise tasks and to communicate with each other remotely – I can put things in his “today” list and he can move them out when they’re done, or re-prioritise them, or add comments and bat them back to me; it means that all his tasks are in one place to see at a glance and we can keep them moving.
Can you recommend any events, books, publications, websites, training programmes for other assistants?
Joan Burge at OfficeDynamics.com is always putting out great free webinars. I’m a big fan – the 12 Days of Christmas Series last year was fab.
My boss lent me Getting Things Done by David Allen, which is a pretty life-changing book and a good easy read. Often with reading a book like that, you can read it and then forget about it, but GTD is really simple to apply, because it all essentially boils down to one flowchart.
I also loved Flipnosis by Kevin Dutton, and Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely: both fascinating, compelling studies into principles of persuasiveness, which is of course an essential skill in our line of work.
And of course, I can’t wait for the PPPA Virtual Summit in October! What a fab idea – it’s going to be cosmic!